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In Russia's Modernization Debate, It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Yury Andropov addresses the Politburo in 1982

Yury Andropov addresses the Politburo in 1982

This has all happened before. And if will probably happen again. And again. And again.

In an interview with "Vedomosti" on Monday, Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov offered his thoughts on how to modernize Russia, arguing that strong centralized authority is necessary:

We have a school of thought that teaches that political modernization -- by which is meant political debauchery and 'anything goes' -- is the key to economic modernization. There is a different concept, to which I hold, which considers the consolidated state as a transitional instrument, a tool for modernization. Some call it authoritarian modernization. I do not care what it is called.

In other words, contrary to a recent report by the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) -- which recommended the dismantling of Vladimir Putin's power vertical, the re-establishment of competitive democratic elections, and a weakening of the power of the security services -- Surkov thinks the vertical not only needs to be maintained, but strengthened.

No surprise there. As the Kremlin's chief ideologist, Surkov is one of the vertical's principle architects. He goes on to deride what he calls 'spontaneous modernization' -- what the rest of us would call democratic development and a free enterprise system -- as a specific Anglo-Saxon phenomenon:

Spontaneous modernization is a cultural phenomenon (it is cultural, not political), and it was achieved only in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Not in France, not in Japan, not in [South] Korea. There modernization was accomplished with statist methods. The 1990s in Russia showed that. It gave rise to the splitting of society, not to positive energy. Yes, some energy is released, but that it is spent and where did it lead? We saw that nothing happened. And the society was forced to recall the state.

So what we have here is one part of the elite arguing that to move Russia forward the state needs to loosen the political screws in order to allow entrepreneurial energy and technological progress to flourish. And another part of the elite (in this case, the one with real power) is saying that the solution to the modernization puzzle is to tighten the screws and let the state be the engine of progress.

Yeah. We've been here before. In fact, we've been here many times before in Russian history. Most recently, of course, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviet economy was stagnating and the entire elite agreed that something needed to be done -- they just couldn't agree what.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service this week, Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin recalls the debate the last time around:

We have had discussions about modernization. We had them in the 1970's and 1980's. We had the same mantras about scientific and technological progress and about how the Soviet Union will live long. We have an analogous case today...But the authorities do not create the means for innovation to grow. They just talk about how they will establish these conditions step by step. I lived a long time in the Soviet Union and I know where these discussions go. They lead to failure and divisions, which we still have to this day.

Two solutions, of course, emerged out of the debate in the 1970s and 1980s -- Andropovism and Gorbachevism.

Soviet General Secretary Yury Andropov's brief attempt at an authoritarian modernization was cut short when he died in 1984. But as I have blogged here and here, it was later resuscitated by Putin and his team -- who were KGB rookies when Andropov led the spy agency and deeply revered him.

Mikhail Gorbachev's crack at modernization, as we all know, led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Wild East "capitalism" of the 1990s.

And it was the specter of that chaos returning that Putin (and his chief ideologist, Surkov) used to justify returning to Andropovism over the past decade. It was a clever trick as it put reformers and liberals in the uncomfortable position of defending the deeply flawed Boris Yeltsin era.

But as anybody who lived and worked in Russia in the 1990s knows, that period was a caricature of a free market economy and a democratic polity.

In a technical sense the 1990s in Russia were much freer than what exists today, but any businessperson will tell you that the state was overbearing, arbitrary, and often brutal. The nexus between the security services, the oligarchs, the bureaucracy, and organized crime was pervasive.

Businesses needed to pay a "krysha" (the Russian word of "roof," essentially a protection racket) to survive. And the most coveted "krysha" was a "goskrysha" (literally a "state roof" or state-run protection racket, most often managed by police or the security services).

It's ironic to hear the siloviki surrounding Putin now railing against the chaos of the 1990s. In reality, the security services who now present themselves as society's saviors from that chaos actually had a big hand in creating it to begin with. Perhaps that was the idea to begin with, but I digress.

So here we are again. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the elite in Moscow debating how to modernize Russia. We've had two rounds (one quite brief, one a decade long and counting) of the Andropovian authoritarian modernization. We have had one deeply flawed attempt at liberal modernization that was eventually sabotaged and hijacked.

To move forward, Oreshkin argues it is now necessary to "open the gate for true creative minds and remove the smothering embrace of the security services and police" so "people can work and receive a profit for their intellectual activities" and benefit society in the process.

But he doesn't see it happening soon. Too many vested interests are willing to go to great lengths to preserve the existing arrangements:

When Surkov talks about how those who want to change the system are dangerous, for him this is definitely true. Those who want to break up the power vertical would destroy his livelihood. The vertical as a structure creates unique conditions for the creation of businesses where people who are not stupid don't need to take any risks or make any investments. Simply because they occupy a place in the vertical, they receive serious bureaucratic and financial benefits. Anybody who threatens the wealth of this new class, this union of business and bureaucracy, of is course dangerous to somebody like Surkov.

Russia's economics is a hostage to its politics. Modernizing the country clearly requires diversifying and decentralizing the Russian economy. Doing so, however, would create an independent business class, which in turn would lead to a more pluralistic and decentralized political system. And that is something the people who currently have real power in Russia likely do anything to prevent.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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